Psychology Professor Examines Bias, Stereotypes in Annual Ridley Lecture

March 24, 2010 — Even the most egalitarian-minded people harbor biases and negative associations toward various social groups, University of Virginia associate psychology professor Brian Nosek told an audience in the Dome Room of the Rotunda on Tuesday.

In the annual Walter N. Ridley Distinguished Lecture, Nosek discussed his research about implicit cognition and bias.

Nosek's interactive lecture, "Mind Bugs: The Ordinary Origins of Bias," highlighted social psychology concepts that influence bias. Nosek also demonstrated sample questions from Project Implicit, a multi-university collaboration he directs that researches and educates about implicit cognition.

Nosek introduced the audience to the basics of perception, explaining that much of our mental life occurs outside the human awareness. For unconscious processes, like balance, this benefits humans by allowing us to concentrate on more immediate tasks.

Another basic concept of social psychology holds that thoughts – both intended and unintended – shape everyday behavior. When competing bits of information come through the sensory system, our minds have to make inferences about reality based on our experiences to make decisions, he explained.

Nosek further discussed the social implications of experience and expectations on our unconscious perceptions.

As an example, he cited an experiment in which a jack-in-the-box surprised a baby, and researchers asked observers to identify the baby's emotion. When researchers called the baby by a girl's name, respondents were likely to say the baby felt "afraid." If a boy's name was used, however, testers labeled the baby "angry."

Both experiments involved the same baby demonstrating the same behavior. The difference, Nosek said, lies in our expectations.

While society's beliefs have progressed significantly in the past 100 years, individuals can still identify stereotypes even if they do not share those views. Based on his research, Nosek believes that this exposure to stereotypes creates unconscious associations in our minds.

These associations can be as simple as a slower response time for a University of Virginia audience in identifying "Virginia Tech" with "pleasant" than matching "University of Virginia" with "pleasant," as the audience demonstrated.

Implicit biases can extend to stereotypes with stronger social consequences, including race, age, religion and sexual orientation.

"Many of these biases are pervasive and not in line with our beliefs," Nosek said.

Nosek encouraged the audience to employ external devices to eliminate the possibility for implicit bias when possible. He cited the case of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra; when the orchestra began implementing blind auditions in the late 1970s, many more women were admitted.

In addition, Nosek said implicit biases are more likely to emerge during stressful situations or when someone is forced to make a decision in a short amount of time.

Anyone can try out Nosek's research and testing implicit measures of bias on themselves by visiting here.

"Brian helped the audience understand that our perceptions are not subject to reason and that we all possess associations that may be at odds with our egalitarian values," said Stanley Trent, Curry's assistant dean of diversity and equity. "Furthermore, he stressed that in order to create more socially just environments, we must become more cognizant of these biases and individually and collectively work to manage them more effectively."

The Curry School of Education and the Ridley Scholarship Fund sponsored the fifth annual lecture, which honors the first African-American to graduate from the University. The late Walter Ridley earned his Ph.D. from the Curry School in 1953, and in doing so became the first African-American to graduate from U.Va. and the first to receive a doctorate from a white Southern university.

"Truly, Brian's presentation was in keeping with Ridley's commitment to educational access and equity for all," Trent said. "He gave us much to think about, and Curry faculty and students will continue to explore the issues he raised in our courses and extra curricular activities."

Nosek was the first University of Virginia professor to speak as part of the Ridley Lecture series. About 200 people watched the lecture in the Dome Room of the Rotunda and in overflow rooms.

Past Ridley Lecturers include Margaret Beale Spencer, Marshall Field IV Professor of Urban Education at the University of Chicago; Henry L. Johnson, former U.S. assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education; Jacqueline Jordan Irvine, Charles Howard Candler Professor of Urban Education at Emory University; and James Banks, director of the Center for Multicultural Education at the University of Washington.

— By Laura Hoffman